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The Lion King

The mantra ‘never meet your heroes’ was firmly refuted this week when I had the pleasure to meet the great Gary Player.

I say ‘great’ but I am conscious that many readers might not have heard of him and if so, then listing his sporting achievements are unlikely to convince many of his prowess and so I will err on the side of his humanity in this short blog.

But before this…

A professional golfer. Winner of 9 major titles and over 150 other tournaments worldwide. One of only five players to win the Grand Slam – all four majors. Winning his first major (Muirfield, 1959) at 23. A kid from South Africa from humble origins…

Even if these accolades mean nothing to you, the fact that should have grabbed your attention is 1959 – a mere 63 years ago – and this makes Gary Player a ripe age of 86 when he hosted a golf day at The Belfry this week to celebrate the 150th Open Championship (at St. Andrews, Scotland next week) with a gala dinner in aid of a local hospice called Rainbows.

The long day began with a bunker lesson from the great man – with some golf instruction but more life lessons and motivational pointers as he flopped balls on to the green easy as you like…

“You have to have a goal…”

“Set targets in your life….”

“Without targets you can’t achieve things.”

“Get fit and be healthy in your mind and in your body…”

The spritely 86 year old is famed for his fitness and he either didn’t notice the paunches and the ruddy complexions on his audience or he did notice, but he didn’t care. More likely the latter I’d say. A man from a different era when facts trumped feelings.

A shotgun start for the paunchy players on the demanding famous Brabazon course at the Belfry and with plenty for us to dwell on. Gary’s sage advice in our ears about our inevitable bunker play ahead and our lives more generally – and particularly so on the 12th hole where we all had to have the opportunity to ‘beat the pro’ who just happened to be one of the greatest golfers of all time.

A tough hole (there are no easy par 3’s at the Brabazon) – in to the wind, a good bash with a 7 iron and you’d think a real challenge for a man in his late 80’s. The weather was kind but I got the impression that inclement weather would not chase Player indoors. Usually, this feature, ‘beat the pro’ is the tee shot only – to get within the pro’s tee shot to win – but this is not the case with the effervescent Gary Player who accompanied each group onto the green to complete the hole.

Incidentally, I halved with a bogey 4.

And then after the long round in the sapping heat and wind, on to the gala dinner which I hosted and required me to interview Gary on stage along with his great friend Tony Jacklin, one of the greatest English golfers of all time.

Both men spoke passionately about their sport and glittering careers. It was heartening to see their friendship with both men welling up when paying tribute to each other. Both were gracious with their time and availability for the people who wanted to be photographed with them both (me included).

Gary told me that his charitable endeavours have raised hundreds of millions of dollars for good causes and I wouldn’t doubt him for a moment. Our interview was easy because he brims with passion and has so much to say and impart.

During the day and long in to the evening, every person present will have marvelled at his energy and asked themselves why is Gary Player doing this. Why is here in Birmingham when he could be relaxing at either of his homes (South Africa and Florida) with his enormous family (six children and 22 grandchildren).

But this question doesn’t need to be asked because the answer is implicit. Remaining so active and sharing his fame is his secret weapon. Being in Birmingham with a room full of strangers is precisely what keeps him going and why he is enjoying such a remarkable life.

A question I am commonly asked is why I chose Muirfield as the venue for my novel, Open Links – which I have never been able to adequately answer.

Until now perhaps but only in retrospect.

Because Gary Player showed up at Muirfield in 1959 as a 23 year old with no hope or chance. But the young man had other ideas and he duly won – becoming the Champion Golfer of the year – his first of three Opens.

This is a fairy tale as magical as the one I conjured in Open Links – a novel with all proceeds to Anthony Nolan, the charity that saves people’s lives with blood cancer. I rue that I didn’t have a copy to share with him. I think he would have enjoyed the unlikely story and the sentiment also.

Meeting Gary Player was a privilege. I ended my interview by simply thanking him for his life and his career and on behalf of everyone present. He smiled warmly and graciously. No doubt, not the first time he’s heard such a thing and not the last time either.

 

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Open Links will be available via The Brothers Trust in the next few days – with ALL proceeds paid directly to Anthony Nolan.

 

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “The Lion King”

  1. It’s nice to meet a hero and for them to live up to your hope and expectations. He sounds like a lovely and very generous man.
    Some good saying also to take into account. Hope you have a good week. I’m sitting in the beautiful sunshine about to get back to reading Made in England and loving it Dom. Congratulations 🎊👏

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